June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
Two Urban Licks
820 Ralph McGill Blvd
Atlanta, GA 30306
The first time I checked out TWO Urban Licks was for a special biannual brunch on Mother’s Day. They don’t typically serve brunch, but they make an exception twice a year for Mother’s Day and Easter. Brunch is such a prime time for Atlanta food outings, so it’s a little curious as to why they don’t normally attempt to cater to this crowd. Nonetheless, I’m always up for checking out restaurants pushing their own boundaries even if in this case I really have no basis of comparison. Reservations were made and while they were mildly busy when we entered, this place was packed to the brim by the time we left. I rather enjoyed the warehouse-inspired texturally eclectic ambiance with its spacious interior and was anxious to see what they had to offer. I presume it has the potential to be a great space for events.
My first real impression of the place was the menu which left me struggling to figure out what I want. It’s usually not that difficult, but none of the entrees particularly appealed to me and I ended up making a last moment decision when the server returned. The menu items mostly felt like misplaced lunch and dinner items which I later discovered was the case with the eggy exceptions. I also felt like the prices felt a bit high considering comparable brunch restaurants.
Bouquet of Bubbles
sparkling wine, fresh strawberry, elderflower liqueur
In all fairness, this was almost unreasonably delicious even if it didn’t feel as if it had that much alcohol and had a different balance when I ordered a second. This drink was lightly crisp and floral under a pulpy mouth feel. They weren’t playing around with the strawberries as it was thick with them, but a really nice blend of flavors that really enhanced each other with a kick of bubbles thrown in the mix.
confectioner’s sugar, coffee cream
I grew up close enough to New Orleans to have what I feel is a justified bias when it comes to beignets courtesy of Cafe Du Monde. I realize that New Orleans way of Cafe Du Monde and other local coffee shops isn’t necessarily the only way to make beignets since it’s certainly a mutation of a much older culinary idea, it’s really molded my ideas of what beignets should be. Yes, they are fried dough loaded with a pillowy mountain of soft powdered sugar that ends up floating about, tangling into your hair and dusting your clothes. This sugar nestles and becomes a starchy sugar paste in the little bits of oil clinging to the crevices on the surface. That’s part of it, but a pile of powdered sugar on top of hot, fried dough does not a beignet make. There is a textural element that makes them more than average. They are more dense than your average doughnut, glutinously chewy on the inside with the fried exterior making a bit of a soft almost-crust. They are one of those simple things that has secured itself as a New Orleans classic and sends droves of tourists and locals alike to keep coming back for more.
The problem I have is that so many places claim to have some sort of beignet, and I guess there isn’t a right way, but there rarely seems to be a version that I’m aware of around here that does enough justice to the concept in my mind. So of course, this dish immediately got me on guard. I will certainly give it credit for at least telling me it’s a brioche beignet, so I should have assumed that it wasn’t going to have the chew or the mild crust to it that I generally desire. All that rant aside, this wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly memorable in my book outside of being another example of a non-beignet. The real kicker was they weren’t even hot or warm. They were pillowy with the same texture throughout the dough and mostly coated with traditional sugar which left a bit of a grainy presence on the bite. There was a mere dusting of confectioner’s sugar. What was really nice was the light cafe au lait-inspired cream. At least there was some sort of nod to the tradition that I’m familiar with, and the cream was very light on the coffee which felt appropriate.
grilled, NY cheddar macaroni, pork jus
This was my panic order, and once it arrived I was taken aback by how huge and simple the plate and portion was. There it is–big, thick slab of grilled pork hanging out in some jus with a wallop of macaroni on the side. The meat was thick and flavored pretty much solely with the grill smoke with no other nuances or counterpoints. There it was being itself. It was juicy, but on that line where it was in danger of starting to be dry from being overcooked. Any potential dryness was remedied by chasing each bite down in the jus which was very straightforward. The macaroni was pretty standard and bland as if it needed some sort of salt or something to enhance the muted flavor. The macaroni and cheese seemed to be mostly relying on its cream which sort of overwhelmed any cheese flavor.
I checked out the current running dinner version of this dish just for comparison purposes and it runs a few dollars more but comes with spicy sweet potato fries, point reyes cole slaw, and local peach habenero chutney. That sounds a lot more interesting than this version, and I’m moderately curious to see how the dressed up counterpart compares.
Fried Green Tomato Benedict
ham, poached farm eggs, tabasco hollandaise
There was something nice going on flavor-wise with this one. The concept itself was nice as there was a lovely tangy vein from the unripened tomato and Tabasco in the hollandaise and it layered nicely on the salty ham. The bread itself I found nice and soft with a little bit of a thin cornmealy crust.
Unfortunately, the execution fell apart. The potatoes looked done, but were undercooked both on this plate and the next one. They were happy to bring more which were possibly even less cooked. The real question here is not so much why the potatoes were undercooked but why they offered such an uninspiring side dish that they repeated a few times on the menu. There was pretty much nothing to note about the potatoes at all. I could have gotten something similar or better at any diner; I would have expected more from a place such as this.
I split my entree as I usually do, so I got the second of the two on the plate. I pushed my fork into the egg and could tell that it was cold, but when the yolk slipped out enact in a bed of milky white that started to run clear close to the yolk, I became quite aware that this poached egg was far from being cooked. Again, it was sent back and made right and was even a little bit warm this time, but it didn’t prevent a pretty big mistake from making the table. This was when I realized due to a few items being cold and undercooked that they were probably beginning to struggle with the service. This might be one of the reasons they don’t do brunch often or maybe it’s just a result of doing brunch when they rarely offer it.
Brisket & Eggs
smoked, home fries, red wine jus
I had a small sample of this ample cut of brisket, and I preferred it to my pork. There was a nice sweetness to the caramelized crust, but it didn’t really drift at all into the core of the meat.
This brunch service was a bit of a mess and suffering from execution a few times considering the price and caliber of the restaurant, but perhaps that is fair considering this is something they rarely do. The menu felt a bit uninspired and left me unimpressed. At least the meat portions were quite ample, but it wasn’t enough to save it for me. I don’t foresee going back for brunch, but as they seldom have it, that certainly won’t be a problem. The bigger issue is if I think I’ll go out of my way to come back again, and considering much more interesting and perfectly executed dishes at places in the same price range, I don’t foresee it.
June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
3280 Peachtree Road Northwest
Atlanta, GA 30305-2439
I went out to this dinner not expecting to write more than an overview review thinking blindly that there wouldn’t be much to comment on plate by plate of sushi other than freshness level and presentation, but I obviously didn’t have a clear comprehension of the level of excellence and beautifully composed flavors that I was set to experience that evening. The four of us shared an extravagant meal with several bottles of wonderful and varied sake, and pretty much all that is left is for me to point and moan at some of the particularly wonderful dishes that stood out in the crowd and hope that you can appreciate them yourself at some point as well. I had the luxury of an expert ordering for us all (in Japanese, no less), and it was a bit difficult trying to match up what we got on the menu as some of the items didn’t seem to exist on their published menu, but I at least generally had a clue of what I was eating.
The first thing that struck me about the experience was the true level of elegance not only in the chic, contemporary Japanese stylings in all the surroundings and table decorations, but in the presentation. One of the many appetizers on our table was edamame which is nothing terribly special to me, but it felt transformed as our server grated a large pink Himalayan salt crystal tableside in the bowl.
Thinly sliced shima aji with grated himalayan salt, fresh yuzu, and e.v.o.o.
I’m pretty sure this dish sealed my newfound love and obsession with yuzu. My sleepy palette jolted awake with a clean, crisp wash of yuzu that melted into the olive oil and tender fish flesh. It was utterly simple and yet effortlessly flawless and I realized then that I was in for some nice flavor enhancements on some classic favorites.
Spicy Tuna Tartare
quail egg yolk served with trufflesoy
This was another winner and one of my favorites of the evening. I’m starting to realize I’m a real sucker for tuna tartare, and this set a new bar for me. As I hadn’t read the menu or description, I had no idea that there was going to be a perfect wave of truffle that always seems to give an effortless melting soft umami to the right components. The yolk added another delightful creamy smoothness along with the rich avocado. It was a real play on soft, melting textures and the trufflesoy was nothing short of genius as it was a perfect balance and coated the creamy textures flawlessly. I seem to recall a subtle dotting of tiny bits of roe that burst and really did a good job of nestling into the creaminess and shaking up the textural factor in a nice way.
ankimo (monkfish liver)
topped with Japanese cucumber and caviar with ponzu (above)
Futo Maki (below)
pickled vegetables with tamago and crab roll
The ankimo was an interesting surprise. As a bit of the foie gras of the sushi world, it was mildly rich and creamy, yet much silkier and cleaner than other fattier livers. Delicate and interesting with a lovely composed tangy ponzu tickling the edges and a thin watery cucumber crisp balanced on top, I was happy to give this a try.
The futo maki was an unexpected surprise and was soft and delicate and well executed texturally. It’s certainly not what I think of when I think of futo maki, which is usually an oversized bite that requires much chewing. There were nice nuances of pickled vegetables and fluffy eggy tamago inside.
Chilean sea bass
Robata grill binchotan
We ended up with a few examples of their Robata grill that evening some of which were served on the grill tableside and others already cooked. They use imported binchotan charcoal made of hardwood that burns at a low temperature for a long time.
This sea bass was another lovely item that I’d go out of my way to order again. The fish was cooked perfectly on the grill with a lightly-sweet tinged edge on the faintly smoky, caramelized edges which broke into huge, moist, fluffy fish flakes. The fresh citrus notes really set this alive too. This was easily one of my favorite representations of the Robata grill that evening.
Soft, and delicate in that pillowy slightly-chewy scallop way, these were lovely, but not particularly memorable for me.
Tsukemono Pickled Vegetables
These were fun and interesting as each vegetable seemed to be pickled in its own way. The brownish ones bottom most were my favorite, and I believe they were possibly burdock or gobo and were soft and sort of sweet. While many of the other ones were interesting, I found them to be a bit too salty for me to continue to eat them.
Mystery Baked Mayo Lobster
Another nice dish, but one that took more of a backstage for me personally. The lobster was soft and fresh with creamy tangy notes of mayonnaise and bits of nutty sesame as garnish.
Eggplant Miso Yaki
Unfortunately, this was one of my least favorite dishes of the evening. Even experiencing the eggplant at different levels of doneness as it continued to cook over the binchotan, it never was quite soft like I wanted it to be. The miso was also salty, one-note, and overwhelmed the delicate nuances of the eggplant’s flavors.
Miso Marinated Duck Breast
Miso Yaki Served with Scallions on a Hoba Leaf
Another dish that slid into the background, this had the same issues for me as the eggplant. It never felt cooked quite right and the briny miso overwhelmed the duck flesh. They are still rather impressive in their presentation, however.
Grilled Cod Cheek
One last item that I believe was cooked with the Robata. Whichever fish’s cheek this hailed from, it was a great variance of texture from chewy, crispy char to its soft center. This was another pleasant standout for me, and it had another lovely citrus-enhanced ponzu which served as a nice bright counterpoint to the woody charred flavor.
toro and scallions roll
An unsuspecting little maki that melted effortlessly in the mouth…probably because it was toro. There was a nice little pairing with soft scallion crunch, and this was oddly memorable perhaps because it was so unassuming in appearance and yet so lovely to eat.
I believe this is tai japanese snapper (above)
uni nigiri (below)
I believe these are chutoro (top)
I’m guessing kinmedai (golden-eye red snapper)
sake salmon (bottom)
These nigiri offerings were actually among my favorite things of the evening. Many of them had a brush of ponzu or trufflesoy or some other sauce brushed on so faint and so elegant that it elevated the nigiri to new levels while managing to only highlight the brilliance and the freshness of the fish. I exchanged many looks of pure delight as I sampled each of these–they were all spectacular in their own right. This was also what I’ll consider one of my first true experiences with uni, and while I didn’t fall in love, I was surprised and pleased as it had blown away my other subpar experiences with sea urchin. It was clearly fresh and in its prime. I highly recommend their nigiri along with some of the other amazing appetizers.
Mango Creme Brulee
with lemon squares
Finally, a really spectacular dessert. The mango flavors were bright and apparent in the creme brulee, and the sugar was burned perfectly. The lemon squares were prancing that fine line of tart and sweet, and the whole dessert was refreshing and creamy, and decadent but somehow light and I didn’t feel guilty eating it–even considering by that point I was really the only one attacking it. A perfect end to a really great meal indeed.
It’s strange how I wasn’t expecting much from this dinner, but perhaps that is how and why it was able to surprise me so. There were certainly a few low points, but perhaps that was because there were so many extremely high points that they just felt unexciting in their presence. I would without a doubt return especially now that I have some favorites and some curiosities about some of the other menu items based on this experience. Their nigiri which was pretty reasonably priced all things considered and is a must order, and it has since made it really difficult for me to enjoy pedestrian sushi when I know that this is available in the world. I’m now also undeniably curious about their Omakase Room, an intimate bi-monthly multi-course sake-paired event for up to 8 guests that is $250 per person.